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The Structural Genocide That Is Capitalism

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

“The dominant class at the world level . . . has become the enemy of all humanity.” – Samir Amin, Ending the Crisis of Capitalism or Ending Capitalism?

Garry Leech, an author who had previously penned a book on the FARC insurgency in Colombia (2011), has assembled a forceful denunciation of the status quo with Capitalism: A Structural Genocide. In essence, he argues cogently in this work that the devastating structural violence experienced by societies subjected to the rule of capital since its historical emergence – and that particularly felt by the world’s presently impoverished social majorities – is, instead of being an aberration or distortion of market imperatives, central and inherent to the division of society along class lines and the enthronement of private property. Even a cursory examination of the depth of human suffering perpetuated historically and contemporarily by the hegemony of capital should lead disinterested observers to agree with Leech that the catastrophic scale of violence for which this system is responsible can be considered nothing less than genocidal, however shocking such a conclusion might prove to be.

In this book, Leech guides his readers through theoretical examinations of the concept of genocide, showing why the term should in fact be applied to the capitalist mode of production. He then illustrates capitalism’s genocidal proclivities by exploring four case studies: the ongoing legacy of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Mexico; the relationship between trade liberalization and genetically-modified seeds on the one hand and mass-suicide on the part of Indian agriculturalists on the other; material deprivation and generalized premature death throughout much of the African continent and the global South, as results from hunger, starvation, and preventable disease; and the ever-worsening climatic and environmental crises. Leech then closes by considering the relevance of Antonio Gramsci’s conceptions of cultural hegemony in attempting to explain the puzzling consent granted to this system by large swathes of the world’s relatively privileged people – specifically, those residing in the imperial core of Europe and the United States – and then recommending the socialist alternative as a concrete means of abolishing genocide, while looking to the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes as imperfect, but inspirational experiments in these terms. In sum, while I take issue with some of his analysis and aspects of his conceptualization of anticapitalist alternatives, his work should certainly be well-received, read and discussed by large multitudes.

Leech begins his text by referencing the original formulator of the concept of structural violence, Johan Galtung. In 1969, Galtung famously expanded prevailing notions of societal violence to include consideration of “the avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs or . . . of human life.” Key to Galtung’s formulation of structural violence in this sense is the gap between “the potential and the actual,” or “what could have been and what is.” Thus, avoidable death resulting from preventable or treatable diseases today constitutes violence, given the technological progression of modern medicine, whereas centuries ago this would not have been the case, according to Galtung. For Leech, then, capitalist society is indelibly marked by structural violence, as the vast inequalities in wealth and access to which it gives rise lead small minorities to be overwhelmingly privileged, while large groups of others are prevented from meeting their basic needs.

Transitioning then to consideration of the question of whether the large number of avoidable deaths observed under conditions of capitalism should in fact be considered genocidal, Leech concedes that the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide excludes mass death resulting from one’s pertaining to a given social class as constituting genocide. However, he notes that an initial draft of the Convention from 1947 did include death or injury resulting from “lack of proper housing, clothing, food, hygiene and medical care, or excessive work or physical exertion” within the definition of genocide. Hence, while such a formulation did not appear in the final version with which we are all familiar, Leech does not accept legal positivism in this case as final; in this vein, he could have done well to have also mentioned that Raphael Lemkin, inventor of the concept of genocide, himself believed the charge should include mass murder of persons following from their belonging to particular classes. Leech nonetheless does mention that the 1998 Rome Statute defines the crime of extermination in part as “the intentional infliction of . . . deprivation of access to food and medicine calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population,” so in this sense has the weight of international law behind him. Leech’s only remaining theoretical difficulty, then, is to argue that intentionality exists within the context of the perpetuation of capital-induced genocide: This proves an easy task, for the question of intent in judging capitalism is not one of examining the actions of particular persons or states (as in most traditional cases of the charge of genocide) but rather of judging the “logic” of the system as a whole. Hence, structural genocide – defined by Leech as “structural violence that intentionally inflicts on any group or collectivity conditions of life that bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” – can be said to be an intentional outcome of adherence to norms which govern a social system that by nature “inevitably results in . . . death on a mass scale,” as does capital. For Leech, the proffered defense of willful blindness – “such was not our intention,” the system’s managers might exclaim – is no defense at all. Or, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “The genocidal intent is implicit in the facts. It is not necessarily premeditated.”

Following this opening discussion of the theoretical case for considering capitalism to be genocidal, Leech takes a few particularly devastating examples from the contemporary world to illuminate his argument. In Mexico, the passing of NAFTA in 1994 has led to the dispossession of campesinos (peasants) on a grand scale, as the country’s stipulated importation of heavily subsidized maize and other crops from the United States effectively led millions to abandon agriculture and migrate to Mexican and US cities in search of employment in the manufacturing sector, in accordance with neoclassical theories of “comparative advantage” – and very much mirroring the means by which capitalism emerged historically through the destruction of the commons in England. For Leech, this forcible displacement has resulted in the explosion of precarity within the informal sector of the economy in Mexico, as many ex-campesinos fail to find traditional proletarian jobs, and it has also driven the horrifying feminicides of maquiladora workers in the Mexican border regions, migration en masse to the United States (and attendant mass death in the Sonoran desert), as well as the horrid drug war launched in 2006 by then-president Felipe Calderón. Leech sees similar processes in Colombia, which hosts the second-largest number of internally displaced persons in the world (4 million), with many of these people having been removed from their lands due to military and paramilitary operations undertaken to make way for megaprojects directed by foreign corporations.

Alarmingly, in India, Leech reports that more than 216,000 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2009, largely out of desperation over crushing debts they accumulated following the introduction of genetically-modified seed crops, as demanded by the transnational Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS, 1994) and the general shift from subsistence to export-oriented agriculture. In many cases, the genetically engineered seed varieties failed to expand yields to the levels promised by Monsanto, Cargill, and co., leading farmers then to take on further debt merely to cover the shortfalls as well as to pay for the next iteration of crops – which by conscious design were modified at the molecular level so as not to be able to reproduce naturally, thus ensuring biotech firms sustained profitability (a “captured market,” as it were). That such a dynamic should end in a downward spiral of death and destruction should be unsurprising, for all its horror.

Leech further illustrates his case regarding capitalism’s structurally genocidal nature in a chapter examining Africa south of the Sahel. It is this world region that has been “most severely impacted” by capital’s genocidal imperatives, claims Leech, and it is difficult to argue with this claim: Merely consider the millions who succumb to AIDS on the continent each year or the other millions who perish in the region annually due to lack of medical treatment for complications within pregnancy or conditions such as diarrhea and malaria, themselves catalyzed by pre-existing background malnutrition. All this deprivation is exacerbated, argues Leech, by food-aid regimes overseen by wealthier societies – which in the US case demands that food be purchased from and shipped by US companies, thus effectively removing a full half of the total resources intended for the hungry – and the infamous land-grabs being perpetrated on the continent in recent years by investors from such countries as Saudi Arabia and South Korea. Fundamentally, though, the conflict is one based on the guiding principles of capital: Because Africans in general do not possess the requisite income to “demand” food commodities within international capitalism, they themselves do not constitute a “viable market” and so are rendered invisible – nonpersons, or “unpeople.

In these terms, Leech also discusses the toxic role of the capitalist pharmaceutical industry, which famously and “logically” invests an overwhelming percentage of its research and development funds in highly profitable schemes for lifestyle drugs directed at first-world consumers – at their most absurd, treatments for baldness, erectile dysfunction, and so on – instead of in essential medicines that could relieve the horrendous disease burden borne by the peoples of the global South. Leech starkly illustrates these tensions by noting that, were the eight largest US pharmaceutical companies to have gained an average profit of $6.8 billion instead of $7.7 billion in 2008, with the difference going to purchase anti-retrovirals for the 3.8 million HIV+ Africans who go without any treatment at all, a considerable percentage of the estimated 1.3 million annual deaths observed on the continent resulting from HIV/AIDS could be prevented. Leech summarizes this all rather starkly: “There is no clearer illustration of the shortcomings in trying to reform the behavior of capital than the ongoing annihilation of poor people in sub-Saharan Africa who are dying as a result of the structural violence inherent in capitalism.”

A similarly horrifying genocidal tendency for which capitalism is responsible is the next one briefly examined by Leech: that of the specter of catastrophic climate change. Leech claims it to be a “truly inconvenient truth” that the capitalist system itself is incapable of mitigating the total threat posed by global warming and instead precipitates this grim eventuality due to its incessant need for ceaseless expansion and profit, based principally on the indefinite exploitation of hydrocarbon resources. Clearly, it is the world’s poor who so far have suffered the most from capitalism’s degradation of the climate, despite having contributed next to nothing to the perpetuation of this world-historical problem: the estimated 2,000 Kenyan farmers who killed themselves upon the failure of rains in 2008, as Leech mentions, or the 260,000 Somalis murdered in the 2011 famine that followed from the worst drought in the past 7 decades. Leech observes that the ever-increasing annual death toll for which capital-induced climate destabilization is responsible will merely cause the overall number of 10 million annual preventable deaths to burgeon, leading ultimately perhaps to the deaths of “millions – or even billions,” in what may well develop into the extermination of humanity altogether.

With his antepenultimate chapter “Legitimizing the Illegitimate,” Leech follows Gramsci in seeking explanations for the means by which such a brutal system as capitalism has reproduced itself over time. He observes plainly that “most people’s world views currently reflect the values of capital,” at least within more affluent northern societies, and that capitalism proceeds with its genocidal proclivities while enjoying “the apparent consent of a significant portion of the world’s population.” Like Gramsci, Leech largely faults the hegemonic cultural processes that obtain within core-imperial societies – formal education, the media, work arrangements, etc. – for normalizing the prevailing state of affairs, in part by excluding the barbarous proceedings of capital from consideration – in contradistinction to his own volume. Channeling Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and other theorists with similar concerns, Leech notes that Western consumers remain largely ignorant of the extreme violence that is required as the very basis for the relative privileges they enjoy in global terms; worse, perhaps, most Northerners – a majority of whom, claims Leech, enjoy “middle-class lifestyle[s]” – have the capacity to escape the alienation driven by capital precisely by engaging in mindless consumerism, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle. For Leech, resistance to the rule of capital is far more evident in the global South, where Western imperial military ventures have long been employed to pacify and control the course of history, in radical denial of self-determination, dignity, and justice.

Leech closes this volume with a plea for socialism as an alternative to capitalist genocide. Given the development of his argument in preceding chapters, he declares that any means of attempting to overcome the extreme violence of capital cannot serve merely as a “band-aid” to the metaphorical “appendage severed by the brutality of capitalism.” The system itself must be overthrown, dismantled; the point is not simply to apply anemic reforms that might slightly attenuate capital’s genocidal logic, but to abolish the genocidal system altogether. For Leech, the most appropriate political alternative is that of a socialism marked by participatory decision-making and social control of the means of production; crucially, as well, this project should include concern for nature – hence, “eco-socialism” – as much of the historical experience of socialism clearly has not.

Following from assertions made earlier in the book, Leech sees the peoples of the global South as playing a seminal role in presenting anticapitalist alternatives in the present day. Indeed, he endorses Marx’s late assertions on the possibilities for noncapitalist societies to simply skip the capitalist stage and enter full communism in accordance with pre-existing communal, socialistic values. In this sense, Leech ends with an appraisal of contemporary experiments in socialism, as in Venezuela and Cuba. While he recognizes that the late Hugo Chávez implemented a vision closer to social democracy than socialism, Leech remains enthusiastic about the various Bolivarian social programs, the thousands of worker-run cooperatives that flowered under Chávez, and the progress taken in the country toward the implementation of popular control of government, not to mention Chávez’s famous internationalism. On Cuba, Leech praises the Castro regime’s well-known successes in the fields of education and medicine – with the latter including the founding in 1990 of the Tarara Clinic, which treats Ukrainian children suffering from the ill-effects of radiation exposure after the Chernobyl disaster without cost – and celebrates the island-country’s near-abolition of child malnutrition, as attested to by UN Special Rapporteur Jean Ziegler, in addition to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2006 declaration that Cuba is the only country in the world to have achieved sustainable development. Tellingly, Leech asserts that Cuba’s main export is health care, while that of its imperialist northern neighbor is weapons!

All these successes notwithstanding, Leech makes some rather problematic assertions in this final chapter on socialism. For one, he claims that the Castros’ infamous imprisonment of those critical of the regime was undertaken “to defend the collective rights of Cubans,” and cites George Lambie’s assertion that “the Cuban state . . . is benign towards the population.” One can think of many eminent and reasonable observers who would strongly disagree with such characterizations! Similarly, in his discussion on eco-socialism, Leech presents Bolivia under Evo Morales as taking significant measures to protect the environment – without mentioning the 2011 controversy over the government’s plan to build a highway through the indigenous nature reserve (TIPNIS), or the general charge of extractivism, as raised most significantly by the unofficial Mesa 18 at the April 2010 World People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Cochabamba, which criticized the Morales government’s perpetuation of mining and oil and gas exploitation and for this reason was banned from the conference’s proceedings.

Despite our disagreements – I would say that Leech has performed a great service with his presentation of capitalism as being structurally genocidal. Perhaps among the most revolutionary acts one can take, as Rosa Luxemburg asserted, is to “proclaim loudly what is happening.” Leech’s volume does this well and should be greatly commended for this, given the general struggle to “displace and estrange the world” (Adorno) from mainstream presentations of it that would have existing power relations live on indefinitely or until such time as catastrophic destruction sets in, whether through impending nuclear war, environmental collapse or a combination of these two.

It is to be hoped that Leech’s passionate contempt for the brutality and senselessness of capital will be taken up by radical social movements seeking to intervene toward the disruption of the hegemonic death-system, in favor of more emancipatory tomorrows. While it is questionable to hold, as Leech does, that such ends will be served by the seizure of state power and the development of Marxist political parties, and though I would argue that the case of proletarian complicity with capitalist imperialism is more complicated than Leech would have it, what is not open to question is the utter depravity of the structural violence inherent to capitalism. As Mark Twain wrote in contemplating the infamous legacy of the Jacobin Terror during the most intense period of the French Revolution: “There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’ if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; . . . our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe [or guillotine], compared with life-long death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? . . . A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror – that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us have been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”

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